38 and Counting: Tejano Conjunto Festival Tradition Is Alive and Dancing

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Eddie "Lalo" Torres performs at the Guadalupe Theater during the annual Senior Conjunto Dance.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Eddie "Lalo" Torres performs at the Guadalupe Theater during the annual Seniors Conjunto Dance.

The 38th annual Tejano Conjunto Festival kicked off with its traditional Wednesday morning Seniors Conjunto Dance and an evening screening of the 1976 documentary film Chulas Fronteras, both at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.

The popular festival continues Friday through Sunday at Rosedale Park, its traditional site. The schedule is filled with concerts by leading conjunto players from South Texas and beyond and draws appreciative fans from all over the country.

Last year attendance at the event doubled to 10,000, according to the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s Executive Director Cristina Ballí. “We got back to 1990s numbers, the glory days of Tejano music,” she said in an email prior to the 2019 festival’s opening.

In announcing the festival at a Tuesday meeting of the San Antonio Arts Commission, member Yadhira Lozano, also communications and special projects director for the Guadalupe, said, “That’s where we’re putting San Antonio on the map – with this humble little grassroots festival.”

Ballí said the continuing popularity of conjunto music is to due younger generations taking up the tradition, in part because of thriving educational programs in a dozen schools throughout the Rio Grande Valley, where she grew up. She also credited grassroots marketing and “conjunto influencers” spreading the word throughout their South Texas networks.

Festival goers make their way around the dance floor at the conjunto festival.

Hannah Whisenant / Rivard Report

Attendees dance during the 2018 Tejano Conjunto Festival.

Scholar Dan Margolies agreed that social media has played a large role in keeping the tradition alive, with people of all ages posting videos to YouTube and other outlets. These make up what he called a “DIY archivist” culture documenting the history and present of the form.

As a professor of history at Virginia Wesleyan College, Margolies studies conjunto culture professionally. But he said his main interest is that he simply likes the music.

“I think it’s a great dance music, and just a real happy music. It’s a good beer-drinking music,” he said. Margolies visits San Antonio regularly to see conjunto players and said he’s a big fan of Flavio Longoria, Ruben de la Cruz, and Lorenzo Martinez, among other players who will perform during the five-day festival.

Thursday evening, Martinez was one of four new members inducted into the Guadalupe Center’s Conjunto Music Hall of Fame. Norfilia “Norfy” Layton, Pepe Maldonado, Edgar Vasquez, and Martinez joined the list of greats already in the Hall, including Flaco and Santiago Jiménez, Bene Medina, Eddie “Lalo” Torres, Eva Ybarra, and Janie Esparza, among other stars of the genre.

“Coming to see Lorenzo is the main reason I come to San Antonio several times a year,” Margolies said. “I’ve learned a lot from him,” he said, and he’s not alone. Teaching for years at the Conjunto Heritage Taller has made Martinez a linchpin of keeping the music alive, Margolies said. “All these good young players playing now went through the taller and learned from Lorenzo. He’s a massive influence.”

Margolies pushed for Martinez’s entry into the Hall of Fame. “I’m into the old tradition-bearing guys like this who’ve had a big impact. And they’re very giving of their skill and their insight.”

The Conjunto Students Showcases, from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, are a great way to catch up on how the younger generations are carrying the tradition along, Ballí said. She also looks forward to the 11 p.m. Friday performance of Los Garcia Brothers, who wear colorful zoot suits that lend a modern twist to conjunto traditions.

Margolies assured that “it’s all good stuff” at the festival, which in total is “a good snapshot of what’s being played in contemporary conjunto.”

The blend of the old and the new, like Tejano conjunto’s blend of ethnic music, is what’s livening up the form, Ballí said. “These performers are Mexican-Americans. They listen to rock ’n’ roll, blues, and jazz, they listen to hip-hop, Top 40, country. They listen to all this American music and enjoy it and perform it, but this conjunto music is still a big part of their lives.”

Lane Fuentes tries out an accordion from a pop-up shop from Alamo Music Store. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Lane Fuentes tries out an accordion from a pop-up shop during the annual Tejano Conjunto Festival.

Asked where adventurous fans of conjunto music might see players perform locally after the festival is over, Margolies recommended VFW posts, which commonly host daytime dances; Connie’s Ice House; and Bosmans on the Southwest Side. Venturing down into the Valley, he recommended the Royal Palace Dance Hall near McAllen and the Villita Dance Hall in San Benito but said the music can be found all over.

The Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center in Los Fresnos holds its own conjunto festival annually in October and is where Ballí got her start as a programmer of conjunto music.

“I’ve been listening to this music all of my life,” she said. “When I was a young person in my 20s, I used to go the conjunto fest every year, take vacation days to enjoy the fest. Back then I never imagined I’d be running it one day.”

Online ticket sales for the 38th Tejano Conjunto Festival have ended, but three-day passes for $45 and single-day $16 tickets can be purchased at the festival gate, according to the Guadalupe Center website. Passes can also be purchased at the Guadalupe office at 723 S. Brazos St.

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